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Posts Tagged ‘Humor’

[The following commentary appeared March 22 on the Christian Science Monitor‘s Opinion page. It was republished March 24 on The Mantle.]

Slave Labor? I Didn’t Get Paid For This Piece — And I’m OK With That

More and more writers are publishing their work without payment in exchange for the promise of ‘prestige’ and ‘platform.’

BRATISLAVA – AOL’s tidy $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post in February produced more pity for the folks who drive much of the site’s success – the HuffPo hordes of bloggers who won’t be offered a slice of the spoils.

They are expected to continue writing for free.

Some call it slave labor. I call it fair barter. Seriously, I would write for HuffPo for free. Heck, I even agreed to write this commentary piece without compensation. [Editor’s note: Thanks again, Michael. You’re very generous.]

I’m a freelance foreign correspondent. I have a wife and three kids to help feed, and I believe that productive labor should be rewarded. So why on earth would I voluntarily submit to sweatshop conditions?

The reason is … Subscription Required for Premier Content

Just joshing. Did I have you going? The real reason I blog for free is, well, because my wife lets me. Another joke! Only partly true. Journalistic Borscht Belt, here I come. But seriously, folks. The key to why I numb myself to compensationlessness can be summed up in on word: investment.

We freelance journalists out on our own today have to “build our brand.” I can’t believe I pulled a mantra from the PR flak’s handbook, but that’s the reality today. How else to distinguish yourself amid the din of countless competing voices and social media? To survive, you have to absorb short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Even if that means writing for free.

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[The following post appeared Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.

Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of this soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig blog last spring (here and here), I was writing about a different book. Which I hold off on publicizing, to spare myself the shame. It’s been shoved to the back-burner, along with other half-baked projects. And ideas for projects.

Instead, teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, I knew I couldn’t visit my subjects too often. It made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.

So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel. Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.

But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.

Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may soon print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.

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[The following piece appeared Dec. 7 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Sometimes, even a Slovak pissoir inspires me.

The old, no-frills Tesco building downtown was recently renovated into a shimmering shopping mall, with bright lights, sleek displays and basement supermarket with a hu-u-u-uge liquor section. (Not that I’m implying anything about my Slovak neighbors.) The twin cafés also got a lively makeover, the upstairs one modernized with cherry-red and mandarin-orange upholstery. As I’ve written, I like both for their fish-bowl perspective of daytime Bratislava.

One thing hasn’t changed, though: the old woman who is caretaker of the men’s WC. (If you’re in desperate need, it’s in back, on the second floor.)

Knowing that I’ll see her in a few minutes, I grow irritated. Not about her, personally. It’s more the idea of her. Why does management need a woman to just sit there, collecting coins on a tray? Doesn’t this place generate enough income? What’s the Slovak verb for “to nickel and dime someone”? Or, is this a relic of Communist-era over-employment? (Which also would have seen someone seated at the base of the escalator, just keeping an eye on things.)

I catch myself. First, on humanitarian grounds: at least it keeps some poor schlub employed. Why begrudge someone just trying to eke out an existence during tough times? Second, it’s really more of a public toilet. Plenty of people come to the shopping center only to browse, wet their whistle, or, depending on the season, to warm up or to cool down. Why not extract a measly 20 euro cents from their visit? (For fellow Americans, that’s little more than a quarter.)

These are the things I think about when walking around Bratislava, instead of wearing earphones to pipe in musical distraction. Important things, like Slovak toilets. Is it really more cost-efficient for management to assign janitors exclusive to the men’s and women’s bathrooms, rather than have store custodial staff handle it? (But please, take your breaks elsewhere, out of sight.)

Or why, during the building-wide refurbishment, did they not install the automated, pay-as-you-pee system that I now see around Central Europe in some roadside, gas-station restaurants?

Then, I see her, virtually blocking the narrow corridor to the bathroom stalls, with her considerable frame resting against a wide table. The piss-and-run swindlers among us stand no chance against her. (more…)

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[The following piece appeared Nov. 16 on The Mantle.]

Homelessness and street-begging have become a daily sight in Bratislava. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – I’ve been meaning to write. Really, I have.

Maybe my sluggishness is because it’s so tough to re-acclimate to colder, wetter weather. Or perhaps the re-immersion in parenting. Three times a week, I ferry my boys to football training – or what we Yanks call soccer practice. Not only do I don the chauffer’s cap, but haul their gear and scramble for snacks. When they demand a masseuse, that’s where I draw the line.

Suddenly today, exactly two weeks after my return from Hong Kong to Bratislava, I feel inspired to paint a portrait of the city that has been my home-base for the past four years. What greater compliment than to show you, not tell you, what an interesting place it is to live.

As I did once before, I’ll do this with a snapshot of daily life. In this case, what’s transpired over the past half-hour: the good, the bad, the ugly.

First, I park near the downtown, in the reserve spot for which we delightedly pay a king’s ransom. I can imagine that it’s difficult for some Slovaks, as mere sentient beings, to recognize that a corner-to-corner X would indicate that spot is off-limits. (If the public has learned one thing from the Wild West capitalism of the post-Communist era, it’s that the rules don’t apply to everyone.)

Hey, even I’ve made that mistake once or twice. But since I’m always rushing somewhere, it sure does piss me off when I routinely get X-ed out of my own spot. No mercy: it’s time to call the tow-truck.

Just Tuesday, I let loose on a woman who evidently felt her visit to the butcher was so urgent, she had to snatch my space. Rather than take a few extra minutes to circle the block and hunt for a public space. Far worse than choose the illicit way, she flaunted her arrogance by parking at a 45-degree angle.

She emerged from the shop, toting her purchase: spicy sausages, probably. I lurched forward, practically tearing a hamstring. (more…)

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[The following post appeared Nov. 8 on The Mantle.]

Thrill of the Hong Kong hunt: the shop where I bagged my trophies. (Photo: mjj)

HONG KONG – A big fat discount. That’s what I wanted on my last day in Hong Kong – a reasonably priced memento of my seven weeks here.

So, I stalked my prey: an antique store in the heavily Chinese neighborhood of Yau Ma Tei. I’d already visited twice and was sufficiently impressed by the layer of dust on their paintings, carvings, calligraphy sets and other crafts.

Maybe these things are truly old … not just scuffed to look that way?

I spotted two small pictures in my modest price range. The larger, an elaborate peacock painted on porcelain (for my burgeoning peacock-themed collection, naturally), had a sticker price of 1,800 Hong Kong dollars (US$232). The second, a father and two children painted on glass, was HK$650 (US$84).

I wanted both. Life’s too short to choose between tchotchke. Better to snag both. Yet, not at these prices. Which is why I needed a strategy. Since everything in such places is marked up exponentially – as if shopkeepers are giggling at the thought of gouging suckers like me – each price-tag is negotiable. Despite any Oscar-worthy protest by the proprietor.

Worse, though, is the nagging fear I’ll be ripped off. Or in China’s case, it’s the inevitability of being ripped off. After all, the Chinese are world-class forgerers of purported “antiques.” According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent of the antiques peddled are fakes.

And it’s not just the antiques, of course. (more…)

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HONG KONG – Last fall, I whined about how tough it was to deliver essentially the same lecture to four separate classes, over a two-day period.

Today, I scoff at 2009 me. Scoff!

I just staggered through a journalism-training equivalent of the hallowed 26.2, an Athenian marathon of teaching. Over six weeks, I cycled through 77 students, most of them mainland Chinese. Divided into 16 groups. Three times each. Forty-eight tutorials. One or two per day, every day. (Did I mention the six-weeks part?)

Not just to chew the fat about journalism. For four weeks solid, I’ve commented on their brand-new blogs. Two posts each, or close to 150. Only a wicked few plowed past the 400-word limit. Then, I critiqued each one, showing how to do it better.

That’s a lot of talking, even by my windy standards.

What made it particularly torturous – for them, too – is that I needed to cover the same journalistic points and principles for each round of tutorial. The same explanation of reporting strategy, interview technique or story structure. Accessorized with the same profound analogy or mirthful anecdote.

Sixteen times. I got sick of listening to myself. But I couldn’t shut up.

Whatever comment came to mind, tumbled out. When they had questions, even better. Tutorials are 90 minutes, but I consistently rambled on for two, two-and-a-half hours. I had the stamina of Hugo Chavez, with just as captive an audience.

If nothing else, I gained a whole new appreciation for Broadway. Evening performance every night, fine. But three matinees per week, as well? How to get the adrenaline going for each show?

Tricks of the trade, I’ve learned. There’s no business, like teaching business.

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